‘I could have gone if you hadn’t lost the only half-decent job you’ve ever had.’
I tug the red train hard with one hand and the power cuts out. The Inter-City 125 needs to get to the station before midday but now I’ve ruined everything with a reversing loop. I turn it around and the set vibrates crossly as it switches back on.
‘You’ve humiliated me. I’m the only person who won’t be there and don’t think that I haven’t told every last one of them why.’
She’s meant to be at the movies tonight with Sal and Nancy and Marigold who she doesn’t like. Marigold’s thick as mud and thinks she looks like Barbara Streisand, but she’s ugly as sin. I’m glad she can’t go. It means he won’t have to put me to bed later on.
‘This never would have happened if you weren’t so inadequate. Five years spent rolling on your back like a dog. Yes sir, no sir, let me lick your boots sir. And look where it’s got you, you’re already forgotten.’
The yellow train is waiting next to the level crossing. It has a black chimney and little black wheels and it’s the same colours as the dead wasp upside down in the fruit bowl. I look at it and change the polarity of the current. She taught me how to do that.
‘Redundancies had to be made. But it didn’t have to be you, did it? It wasn’t Steve or Garry. Maybe, if you’d actually shown an ounce of grit for once in your life, they’d have kept you on.’
He used to put paper in folders in an office. Now they don’t need him. It was a job for stupid people who didn’t work hard enough at school, or who didn’t even go to school, and he was the stupidest of them all.
‘They’re all envious of me, because I told them we were getting a flokati. Now how am I going to look when it never appears? And Marigold will have one before you know it. That ratty, buck-toothed tramp is jealous of everything I touch.’
He comes into the living room and sits down. The sofa cushions wheeze like Granny’s old Pekingese as he leans forwards to pat my head. His fingers are chubby and red and make me think of the raw meat which hangs in the butcher’s window. They mess up my hair, which is a shame because she put brylcreem in it this morning and made it look all fancy.
‘And now you want me to go and work as a secretary. Now I’m supposed to keep you. I was the prettiest girl in this town. Everyone wanted me. I could have had Billy O’Connell and lived in that flat he bought last year, could have looked out over the Thames every morning. Or Sam Jackson, if I’d married him, I’d have a garage and Nancy told me he’s just bought an arcade machine. But no, instead I’m stuck in the back of beyond with you, digging our own foundations for a lousy conservatory. I’d be better off without you.’
I look at him and I get one of my feelings again but it’s a simmer, not a boil. He gets up and the front door shuts quietly, then opens again and slams. She’s followed him and she never usually does that. He’s probably only gone to visit the carrots; they’ve just started to poke their heads out of the soil. I increase the voltage so the yellow train goes faster and it wobbles a bit before it hits the red one. Then they both fall down and land on different sides of the track.
‘And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?’ We finish my bedtime reading and I can feel her smiling even though my eyes are closed. My head is on her chest and she smells like the perfume he buys her, all mixed up with bleach and damp wool. The waxy blobs float inside my lava lamp. They’re like the jellyfish I saw at the aquarium, falling together then breaking apart. The lamp is new. My best friend at school, fat Tommy Ridley with three moles, said his mum and dad were getting him one for his birthday. So, I told her I needed one and the next day she went to the Arndale Centre and now it’s on my bedside table, making red shadows run up and down the walls.
She strokes my hair which means that it’s time to say goodnight soon. But that’s not right, and I wonder if she’s got the time wrong even though she never gets anything wrong. Bedtime happens after he sprays the poison over the vegetable patch and his torch peeks through my window. Sometimes in the morning I like to follow the silver slug trails until I find them belly-up, all milk white, staring at the sky. Bedtime happens after he comes upstairs and turns the shower on and I can’t hear the television anymore.
Downstairs, a man is bellowing crackly words out through the set which climb up the stairs and into my ears. I don’t understand what they mean, but he’s Welsh, like Mr Morgan who runs the corner shop where it’s easy to pinch a sweet from the Pick ‘n’ Mix.
‘Order, order. The ayes to the right 311. The noes to the left 310’.
‘Well, there you go,’ she says, like she always does when she’s extra pleased about something. ‘There’s going to be a general election. We’ll have Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street by May.’
So, it’s about politics, which is strange because he hates politics. If she isn’t there to stop him, he’ll turn the television off as soon as the men in suits mention Mr Callaghan or Mrs Thatcher. I listen as carefully as I can for the slurping, pig noises he makes as he tries to finish off the leftovers from Sunday lunch without us catching him. But I can only hear the Welsh man shouting and her breathing and my breathing, which is snuffly because I’ve got a cold.
‘He’s gone down the pub with Roger. Probably be back late.’
He almost never goes to the pub and I grin because this is a better treat than chocolate. It’s just me and her and I don’t have to wait for the water to stop running and for my door to squeak as he opens it. When he kisses my forehead, his stubble scratches my skin and it hurts and makes my eyes twitch, which gives it away if I’m pretending to be asleep. Her skin is smooth and warm as she tucks me in and we say our favourite rhyme after she turns out the light.
‘Night, night, sleep tight, don’t let the bugs bite. If they bite squeeze them tight, they won’t come back another night.’
In the morning, it’s raining and his black overcoat is hanging on the rack. I think that maybe he took his umbrella, but it’s leaning against the back door, where he left it yesterday. She gives me toast with strawberry jam because we’ve run out of Froot Loops. It makes my hands sticky. When I look in the mirror, my nose and mouth are all smeared in red and it looks like I’ve been punched. She cleans me up at the empty kitchen sink. Normally, his plate sits in the corner like it’s sulking, all crusty with the runny parts of his egg which have dried. She splashes my face with cold water and I watch as it makes little red whirlpools around the plughole.
‘He didn’t come home from the pub last night. Think he might be gone for good. If he is, we’ll go away for a bit. To celebrate.’
My insides go tingly and I’m even happier than I was the day his appendix got sick and he had to stay in the hospital for a whole week. But then I remember that his brand-new leather briefcase is still in the hall and the last time I saw his wallet it was tucked into the pocket of the jacket thrown over the bannister.
‘Perhaps he’ll send for his things,’ she says, and picks up my plate. Her fingers are raw, like she’s scrubbed them for hours, and the skin is starting to peel off in see-through strips. I look at them and think that they must hurt and that there’s hand cream in the bottom drawer of the vanity unit. She gets my school bag and it’s damp and smells like Ajax. When I go into the living room there’s a circle on the carpet, the size of the tyre that she used to make me a swing, where all of the colour has been bleached out and the smell is so strong that it’s crawled all over me. She says that she dropped the fresh pint of milk when she was bringing it indoors, but I’ve already seen it on the top shelf of the fridge, and I don’t like that she has a secret.
Before we leave to walk to the bus stop, she gathers a fresh load of washing and picks up the tin of stain remover. I ask her if she spilt the milk on her dress and she says that she did, but the sweater she’s holding is the one he wore yesterday. As she kneels, a beetle scutters out from under the machine and the sunlight makes prism patterns on its back. It stops and looks at her, which I think is rude, so I stamp hard and it cracks thickly beneath my rubber sole.
‘Clean him up, darling’, she says and smiles at me.
About The Author
Emily has completed the fifth year of her English Literature BA (Hons) at the Open University. She enjoys a wide range of fiction and her favourite novel is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
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